WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. - Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, the letterpress was the primary technology used for printing for 500 years. That changed in the late 1970s when desktop publishing almost made it obsolete.
But the letterpress is going through something of a revival these days, and that’s giving new life to typesetters like Bill Berkuta.
“The thing I like about letterpress is, it’s hands-on,” said Berkuta. “Most of the other things, you do it on the computer, you don’t get your fingers dirty. Here, I’m constantly cleaning my hands, because I’m always dirty. It doesn’t matter what I touch, I get dirty on everything.”
Growing up in Glendale, Berkuta dropped out of Trade Technical College after one semester once he got a job at the TypoGraphic Service Company. A union shop, he joined the International Typographical Union, one of the oldest trade unions in America. But when the company reduced his hours, he left shortly after a strike to start his own business.
“The reason why I love typesetting is I'm the computer and I don't have to trust an automatic piece of equipment to do the job that I normally do,” said Berkuta. “And I can make better judgments on punctuation than the computer can. I have to make it fit in the space that it’s got to go so sometimes I have to rewrite some things.”
He's stayed with the trade, despite the ups and downs. Berkuta closed his shop and later found himself at Aardvark Letterpress, a family-owned company that’s been around for over 50 years. He’s a master at play here and has worked with artists like Shepard Fairey, Gronk, and Ed Ruscha. That’s because his business has shifted away from things like business cards more towards fine art.
“This may last 10 to 20 years before it falls apart where the cotton papers we use are considered archival and they will last for hundreds of years,” said Berkuta as he holds up a sheet of white paper.
But unlike a computer, the letterpress isn’t perfect.
“Typos happen,” shrugged Berkuta.
But there’s something about it that attracts high-profile clients. There’s a beauty to formal invitations and stationary that cannot be achieved with a laser printer.
“Nostalgic factor on letterpress printing is a whole lot better because on an e-print,” said Berkuta. “You can't feel the impression in the paper, which you can in letterpress.”
Next time you want something printed, maybe leave your computer powered down and try the letterpress.